By Chaz Lipp

The return of American Idol is getting more and more embarrassing as the new judging panel of Lionel Ritchie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan becomes increasingly fawning and downright unrealistic in their praise. The first “performance” night for half of the Top 24 contestants was in fact just an extension of Hollywood Week. After the always self-congratulatory trio of judges finalized their picks last week, they watched (and loved) 12 of them. And then they’ll remove five from the group before repeating the process next week. The voting public continues to wait for a chance to participate in the process.

Dominique – “Ain’t Nobody” (Chaka Khan) – The judges’ take: Katy Perry—“Wow, forwards and backwards.” Lionel—“That was the star attraction performance. You’re blossoming.” Luke—“You showed is a different approach. Awesome.”

What?! This was a distressingly retro-styled performance and the irritatingly one-named would-be star Dominique struggled fiercely to be heard over the busy band and backing vocals. Grade: D+

Layla Spring – “A Broken Wing” (Martina McBride) – The judges’ take: Lionel—“You actually did it. You kill me.” Katy—“You made us feel (the notes) in our gut.” Luke—“You’re infectious. It’s fun watching you put it all together.”

Um, okay. This little country girl is deeply in over her head. Her perky, naïve persona recalls Kellie Pickler just a bit. Her voice is pretty but bland. This was better than Dominique, but nothing to write home about. Grade: C

Catie Turner – “Call Me” (Blondie) – The judges’ take: Luke—“I couldn’t quit watching you. Your voice is always there.” Katy—“Incredible presentation. The sound is growing more and more.” Lionel—“You have taken your style and made us believers in your style. I applaud you, we applaud you.”

If Catie makes it through to the voting stage, it’ll be interesting to see if she polarizes audiences. Her voice is actually pretty strong, but her “goofy nerd” persona is wearing mighty thin. And worst of all, her newfound “confidence” is reading more like arrogance. This Blondie cover did have some good energy at least. If you close your eyes to avoid seeing her overwrought stage presence, it’s decent. Grade: B-

Dennis Lorenzo – “Rude” (Magic!) – The judges’ take: Katy—“ That was so beautiful. It wasn’t one of those songs that showed off how well you can sing.” Lionel—“Song selection.” [Ed. Note: Oh look at that, sort of a mild criticism, how novel!] Luke—“You have moves like you belong on the stage. You can’t do no wrong for me.”

Wow. The auto-praise from the cheerleaders, I mean “judges,” is getting a bit sickening. This party-ready, danceable performance was absolutely inoffensive but also completely unmemorable. It’ll be a gigantic surprise if he continues. Grade: D

Michelle Sussett “If I Were a Boy” (Beyonce) — The judges’ take: Lionel—“I love what you’re doing, continue your climb.” Katy—“You have that power within you.” Luke—“You have a very, very good tone and a very unique tone.”

More uplifting affirmations from the judges. At least Luke said something tangible about her singing. This girl looks like a million bucks, but she’s a Selena clone through-and-through. The bilingual aspect of her Beyonce cover at least distinguished her from the rest of the bunch. But her voice has been so-so, right from her audition. She’s got the look, but not the chops. Grade: C+

Michael J. Woodard – “Golden Slumbers” (Beatles) — The judges’ take: Luke—“You let all your emotions show. You’re on the ride, you’re loving the ride.” Katy—“You’re so chosen. Keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

These inanities by the judges are not even critiques in the slightest. Anyway, Michael scores some points with an unusual song choice (this is a Beatles tune that’s never been performed on the show previously). But he scores even more points by basically just standing there and focusing on delivering a strong vocal. And he takes some liberties with the melody that pay off nicely. Grade: B

Trevor McBane – “Way Down We Go” (Kaleo) – The judges’ take: Katy—“He’s like a thunderbolt in a bottle. I want to pull off the restraints.” Lionel—“The greatest thing here is you can take your concentration – there’s concentration with relaxation. You need to let yourself come out.” [Ed Note: Finally some actual constructive criticism] Luke—“You’re making us believe. If you release those reigns – turn the horses loose.”

Lionel managed to come with someone potentially useful to say to Trevor. The song was maybe too obscure a choice to truly connect with audiences across the board. Trevor brings grit to the contest but this was an uneven performance. Sometimes it felt he was pushing too hard. And the Amish-style costume he always wears is getting a bit old. Grade: C+

Jonny Brenns – “Georgia” (Vance Joy) – The judges’ take: Lionel—“I’m sensing the sexy coming out. You are blooming. You remind me so much of me. You have to get comfortable in your own skin.” Katy—“I’ve believed in you from day 1. Your song choice was dead on.” Luke—“You are a big star, you don’t know it. You really have such a smooth voice nobody is expecting. Good job.”

This guy Jonny could really clean up. He’s totally bland, but his voice is smooth and his entire presentation fits the mold of today’s young male pop stars. I don’t personally care for his style, but he does it well. Jonny is a rare case where I actually understand what the judges are praising (well, maybe not Lionel’s who “sexy” spiel). Grade: B-

Kay Kay – “Love on the Brain” (Rihanna) – The judges’ take: Luke— “You were just born as a star.” Katy—“You’ve always been incredibly talented. Tonight the full package has arrived.” Lionel—“You’ve got that poise. If this is where you are now, I can’t imagine where you’re going to take us.”

After the meaningless noise from the judges, we’re left with a technically solid vocal performance. The whole “Kay Kay” thing is super annoying, just like “Dominique”—who do these wannabes think they are at this point? Well, the judges have pegged them each as a superstar already. She’s a good singer though. Grade: B

Brandon Diaz – “Hello” (Judge Ritchie) – The judges’ take: Katy—“You are so brave. You landed somewhere in the middle.” [Ed Note: an actual critique, however brief!] Lionel—“This is the first time I was nervous for you as you were singing. I wish for you to take to who you are. You took it at the end. You owned it at the end.” Luke—“I wouldn’t say that was a flawless vocal performance for you.” [Ed Note: Wow – Luke actually admitted to NOT liking something, good for him – it’s a start, at least.]

Yes, this was weak. And a blatant attempt by Brandon to steal headlines by doing Lionel’s signature tune. And it backfired. None of the judges were impressed (the above sampling of comments really represents an outright PAN relative to what thoughts they normally answer. And the show was stolen by a hammy duet between Lionel and host Ryan Seacrest (who sounded surprisingly good). Grade: B for the Lionel/Ryan duet… but a D for Brandon

Gabby Barrett – “My Church” (Maren Morris) – The judges’ take: Lionel—“You have amazing attitude. Give us a little more of your personality half way through.” Katy—“That was really cool. At the end it went from zero to 100 real quick.” Luke—“I’m happy. We’re looking for people who the shine, sparkle and the ‘it’ factor.”

Much like Michelle, Gabby has visual flair to spare. But unlike Michelle, Gabby has real vocal chops. I think she’s also getting a bit full of herself. That said, her country affectation was a bit forced throughout the early part of her performance, but her finish was so strong it cancelled it out. It’ll be interesting to see how she fares once the public has a say, because it would be amazing if she isn’t selected to move forward. Grade: B

Cade Foehner – “All Along the Watchtower” (Bob Dylan) – The judges’ take: Katy—“You sure are a minister and you can preach to me any time you want. You are a star.” Luke— “We love you buddy. No comment here, good job.“ Lionel—“It’s the attitude, it’s the personality. Sexy. You’ve got it.”

Imagine any time in Idol history a male judge going crazy solely over his perception of a female contestant’s sex appeal. It wouldn’t have flown. But Katy gets a pass in her over-the-top swooning for Cade Poser.. I mean Faker… I mean Foehner. She wants to sleep with the guy, we get it. As for Cade’s performance, hey—he seems like a pretty good guitar player, I’ll give him that. His slurry, growling take on Dylan’s “Watchtower,” modeled of course after Jimi Hendrix’s iconic take, was as laughable as the pile of hair on his head and the stupid feather hanging off his guitar neck. Retro-rock guys have done well on this show, but Cade has so far failed to demonstrate he has the vocal chops of Season Four’s runner-up Bo Bice or Season 13’s winner Caleb Johnson. And yes, the voting public WILL compare, should Cade be forced upon us. Grade: C-

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